Your skin usually repels any bacteria it encounters, and protects you from all sorts of infections. However, when you get a bug bite or a rash, some of those bacteria can sneak in, which can potentially cause serious consequences.
For example, you can develop cellulite – this is the most common infection that occurs when bacteria break through the skin barrier. It is estimated that 1 in 503 people, or 0.2%, of the population gets this painful red rash every year. This can happen after a bite or cut or when your skin becomes so dry that it cracks and bleeds.
When the infection occurs, the area becomes painful, swollen, firm and hot. These symptoms can develop quickly, sometimes in less than 24 hours. It usually affects the feet or legs, but it can affect any part of the body – even your face. You may see red streaks or blisters in the affected area, and the skin may become dull and above all very soft.
Most people who get cellulite are middle-aged or older adults, but children and younger adults can get it too. Apart from age and bad luck, risk factors include being overweight or an immune system weakened by diabetes, cancer or HIV / AIDS. Circulatory problems, such as prolonged bone swelling, also make people susceptible.
A variety of different bacteria can cause cellulite. One of the most common culprits is Staphylococcus aureus – often called “staph.” Another common one is the same bacteria that are responsible for strep throat: Group A Streptococcus pyogenes.
Cellulitis is an infection of the deeper layers of the skin, and you cannot catch it from anyone else.
If you get it, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics and the condition should improve within a day or two. However, the redness can take up to four weeks to go away completely. Do not worry if your skin becomes slightly scaly, flaky or wrinkled as the inflammation heals.
Seek emergency care if the affected area does not clear up within three days, you have a fever of more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, you develop other flu-like symptoms, the redness and pain quickly worsen or an abscess forms.
To prevent cellulite, protect your skin by wearing appropriate clothing. You should also wash the skin immediately after an injury with soap and water. If you tend to have dry skin, use moisturizers to prevent any cracking.
Why Cellulite Matters
Cellulite can become very serious.
If left untreated, it can spread to your lymph nodes or blood, causing a life-threatening condition called sepsis. Sepsis can affect the internal organs and even shut them off, which can be fatal. The bacteria can also spread to the bones or heart as soon as they enter the bloodstream, with possible long-term consequences.
Doctors and other medical practitioners can diagnose cellulitis by examining your skin. In some cases, doctors may grow or sample the bacteria from the skin or blood to find the culprit. Sometimes there may be concerns that it will form deeper pockets of infection. In those cases, a doctor may order a CT scan or ultrasound test.
Is it cellulite or something else?
Just as there is a danger that you will not get cellulite before it causes more serious problems, there is also a risk that other diseases will be confused with cellulite. This confusion is something we often see as dermatologists.
Stasis dermatitis, caused by swelling of the bones of leaking ear valves, is the most common condition that looks like cellulite. Fortunately, the two can typically be distinguished, as stasis dermatitis tends to affect both legs. Cellulitis almost always affects only one leg or arm at a time.
A hematoma, a collection of clotted blood under the skin or other areas, can also sometimes mimic cellulitis. So can gout, a form of arthritis. Like cellulite, it can be red and painful. However, gout usually occurs over a joint.
Marjorie Montanez-Wiscovich is affiliated with the University of Florida. She serves as principal investigator in clinical trials with Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals and DermTech.
Arthur Mark Samia does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliates outside of their academic appointment.